Sitting outside a luxury hotel on the Costa Smeralda in Northern Sicily, watching a superyacht cruise effortlessly across the water, would be an unlikely time to recall harrowing images of deforestation and stories of international corporate crime. However, the same yacht is likely the end product of illegal supply chains with their roots in the politics and corruption of Myanmar.
For the past several hundred years the forests of Myanmar have been subject to widespread exploitation by various administrations seeking to profit from its teak landscapes.
To counter the destruction of Myanmar’s forests the EU has enacted several trade moratoriums on teak wood from the country attempting to slow the deforestation. However, investigations undertaken by several environmental organisations have revealed that the banned imports are still making it into the single market.
Prior to the 1962 establishment of a military junta in Myanmar, its forests were managed under the Burmese monarchy and then later the British. Both the old ruling elite and the colonialists recognised the immense potential for profit that could be derived from the harvesting of natural grown teak – the prime timber for shipbuilding.
After the British arrived in 1824, Dietrich Brandis, the forest superintendent created the Burma Forest Department in 1856. This new governing body sought to change the central administration’s approach to forest management towards a panoptic scientific style and take away any control rural communities had.
The new Forest Department implemented stringent laws against unlicensed felling of teak (later expanded to 14 species). Colonial control over forest ownership was expanded in 1881, with the passing of the Burmese Forest Act allowing for the establishment of forest reserves.
As a result, teak crops were closely managed and strictly regulated by a centralised administration aimed at maximising profits. Attempts to prevent rural communities from removing teak for subsistence in order to conserve teak harvests were unsuccessful.
In actuality, Myanmar’s rural communities were well versed in maintaining the forest; relying on teakwood for shelter and agriculture, sustainably managing the forests long before Western scientific management strategies were introduced.
By 1800, 51% of teak stands in Burma were held in forest reserves effectively handing over full managerial control and ownership to the British. Following World War II and Burma’s independence from the British Empire in 1948, the economy was left in tatters. This sparked years of civil unrest and factionalization of various insurgency groups, breaking up the country.
These groups maintained draconian control over the forest area, resulting in any prior forest management coming to a halt. With the collapse of a centralised forestry directorate, deforestation rates soared during these years, accelerating after various military coups conducted by the Burmese military in 1962 and 1988.
The harvesting of teak wood was seen by the junta administration as a quick fix to its economic troubles and the spiralling recession in the country. To expand its program of deforestation, the junta enlisted the help of private Thai and Chinese firms to harvest teak wood and export it to Western markets.
The result of this turbulent history has been the widespread destruction of Myanmar’s forests.
Upon witnessing the destruction that years of over intensive logging had caused in Myanmar, in 2014 the EU decided to rule imports of raw logs from the country as non-compliant with European Union Timber Regulations (EUTR):
“‘None of the assurances that the Member State competent authorities have received can be relied upon as sufficient for demonstration of compliance with the EUTR”
Commission Expert Group on the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) and the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Regulation (FLEGT).
However, trade statistics published by EU countries indicate that Burmese wood is still being imported into the single market. An investigation undertaken by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) exploring these allegations, discovered that a Croatian teak importer named Viator Pula had received payments from various firms across the EU to circumvent EUTR.
Under European regulations, firms purchasing wood from outside the EU must undertake due diligence checks on the supply chain to ensure a negligible risk of illegality. However, when purchasing from inside the single market, European firms do not have to undertake these assurances.
Various firms from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, purchased teak wood from Viator Pula without being required to conduct due diligence on the prohibited Burmese wood. EIA Spokesman Alec Dawson stated that these firms: “evidently saw Croatia as a weak link and thought to exploit it, with Viator [Pula] taking all the risks”.
The EIA investigation discovered that 144 tons of teakwood had been transported into the EU between 2017 and 2019 via the port of Rijeka. The value of this teakwood equates to around $1 million.
In actuality, the quantity of illegal teak circulated in the EU is likely to be much higher, with trade statistics obtained from Myanmar indicating that around 1000 tons of teak had been sold into Croatia between 2018 and 2019.
In 2011, the military junta that had controlled Myanmar moved towards a quasi-democracy style of leadership by implementing parliamentary elections and other libertarian reforms based on their own 2008 constitution.
Since that time Myanmar’s parliament has been dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, this brief foray into democracy has been cut short by the military, once again, seeking to regain political dominance after a humiliating defeat in the parliamentary elections held last November.
In response to the militaries proxy party, The Union and Solidarity Party, winning just 33 of the available 476 seats in Myanmar’s parliamentary general election last November, the leader of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw military, enacted a coup d’etat with the aim of returning Myanmar to stratocracy, whilst placing Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD party leaders under arrest.
In the past, the military leadership of Myanmar had utilised its forests as a short term revenue flow, to prop up a poverty-stricken economy and combat sanctions placed on its exports by wealthy Western nations concerned by its human rights record and autocratic character.
During the brief democratic spell, the NLD sought to combat the endemic deforestation that the military leaders had encouraged, seeking to put an end to the illegal logging operations, joining the UN REDD+ program, sending positive signals of environmental conservation to the rest of the world.
The return of the military regime underneath Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has lead many democratic nations to place economic sanctions on exports. As a consequence, Myanmar is set to turn to neighbouring nations such as China, India and Thailand that place far less value on environmental regulation.
The possibility of this eventuality is compounded by the fact that little teak that remains in Myanmar is largely situated along the border with China and Thailand, allowing for the quick extraction of teak to processing sawmills in the neighbouring countries.
The affinity between Myanmar and China has only been strengthened since the early 2000s, when the junta last held political dominance. Myanmar has agreed to dozens of trade agreements and encouraged the Chinese orchestrated ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ with hopes of improving infrastructure and trade in and amongst southern Asia and Africa.
Since its forcible seizure of power on February 1st, the Myanmar forestry sector has sought to combat the inevitable backlash against the recommencement of widespread forest operations. In a statement released by the Myanmar Forest Products and Timber Merchants Association (MFPTMA), it was claimed that the organisation remained: “trading legally and officially”.
Later this statement was refuted by the EIA that evidenced the widespread corruption and historic lack of diligence undertaken by the Burmese government that has lead to the destruction of the countries natural resource.
Tatmadaw is likely to begin selling off the remaining stockpiles of harvested wood collated by the NLD over the past five years, to stem the economic hardships that are set to once again engulf the politically embittered nation.
It is evident that economic sanctions against Myanmar will only encourage the sale of those logs to turn eastwards, rather than conserve the last remnants of Myanmar’s forests and do little to stem the flow of illegal logs into Europe.
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